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Who Is This God?

Richard Dawkins famously opens chapter two of The God Delusion with the following oft-quoted, adjectivally promiscuous salvo:

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.

A bit over the top, perhaps, but certainly a common enough sentiment out there—at least for the religious skeptics.  Whatever might be made of Jesus in the NT, OT God = angry, jealous, violent, and intolerant.  For those looking for Scriptural ammunition to use against the faithful, the Old Testament is often the first stop.  One does not have to look far in the wild and wonderful world of blogging to find someone enthusiastically delighting in the myriad inconsistencies and supposedly immoral and absurd behaviours predicated of God in the Old Testament.

This much is par for the course in a skeptical post-Christian context.  But what about the person in the pew?  Do these questions touch down there as well?   Well, this afternoon I got an answer via a phone call from someone who has, over the course of the last little while, been reading through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.  The OT is, of course, not light or easy reading.  There is a lot of strange stuff in there, but this person had made it through a large portion of the OT with their faith intact.

Upon arriving in Jeremiah, however, the questions and the dissonance became acute.  So many bleak prophesies, so many angry-sounding oracles against other nations, so much violence and intolerance, so much stuff that just doesn’t fit well with our twenty-first century Canadian moral sensibilities.  Jeremiah is often called “the weeping prophet” but in this case, reading him was nearly cause for weeping as well!  This person had had enough!  “I need you to either convince me to keep reading or give me permission to stop!”

This is not Richard Dawkins or one of his acolytes talking here.  This is a committed Christian—a generous, kind, compassionate, socially engaged person full of spiritual vitality and an infectious love for life.  But what to do with all this anger and judgment?  At one point, this person simply said “I say this with the utmost reverence, but who is this God?”

The question of how to reconcile God as described in the OT with “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” isn’t easily dealt with, regardless of how many books and commentaries read, no matter how many lectures listened to.  And the question doesn’t necessarily get easier the farther along the journey of faith one goes.  We all need to come to some peace regarding the nature and character of God, but there is a sense in which the question never disappears entirely.

On one level, it was a bit sobering that I had so little to offer.  I spoke a bit about narrative approaches to Scripture, different theologies of inspiration and Scripture, and the concept of progressive revelation.  I talked about how God accommodates his revelation to the cultural forms and patterns of those he seeks to communicate with.  I talked about the difference between descriptive and prescriptive texts.  I talked about how every part of Scripture is a product of its time and uses literary forms and themes that do not always make sense to us.  And, of course, I talked about how the most accurate and complete picture of who God is and what he is like is found in Jesus (Col. 1:15-20).  All of this was well and good, I suppose, but was it enough?  Would anything be enough?  Should I have had something like a grand unifying theory of making sense of the Bible at the ready?

In a sense, God hasn’t done himself any favours in binding himself to this strange collection of books we call “The Bible.”  I’m afraid it’s just not very good divine PR for a people as “enlightened” as us.  Anger makes us postmoderns uneasy and is thought to be unworthy of a good God, violence is considered barbaric, and exclusivity is deemed intolerant and judgmental.  In a post-Christian, skeptical world in which many of us have friends, neighbours, siblings, spouses, parents, and co-workers who find the God in whom we have put our hope unbelievable and/or immoral, is this “primitive” book redeemable?

I certainly didn’t fix any problems for this dear soul today.  I didn’t unlock the mystery of why God seems angrier in the OT than in the NT.  I didn’t send this person back to Jeremiah with any creative, esoteric interpretations that made all of the nasty bits more palatable.  I think this person left the conversation glad to have found somewhere to discuss the problems and grateful for the assurance that they were part of a long and rich tradition of wrestling with difficult passages.  But tomorrow morning when they crack open the book of Jeremiah, will the questions have disappeared?  I suspect not.

One of the passages I am pondering as I prepare for this week’s sermon is Jeremiah 9:23-25:

This is what the LORD says:
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,

24 but let those who boast boast about this:
that they understand and know me,
that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the LORD.

As our conversation drew to a close today, we paused on the observation that despite all of the seemingly impenetrable cultural trappings that God comes to us in, despite the passages that we find bizarre and even offensive, despite the perceived dissonance between the God of doom and gloom oracles in Jeremiah and the self-giving, self-emptying, sacrificial love-exhibiting God of the NT, people still read this book—this whole book—and come to the conclusion that God loves them, that God is one, and that God is good. Despite the “bad PR” of the OT, people still discover a God who exercises and delights in kindness, justice, and righteousness.

That’s worth remembering, I think.  It provides us a safe space within which to wrestle and get frustrated and confused.  It also provides a space for us—all of us, including postmoderns—to have some of our assumptions and certainties about things like anger and violence and intolerance sharpened, challenged, or reoriented.  We are part of a long tradition of learning how to love and live with God.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a great post, as it hits on one of what I believe to be the two main theological issues Christians are faced with in this post-modern world (the other being the problem of suffering).

    My wife and I are reading through the Bible this year, and as such we just finished Jeremiah a few weeks ago (never realized that the first 9 months of my year would be devoted to the OT; lot of stuff in there to cover!). You’re right; there does seem to be a lot of raging against nations that isn’t seen in the NT. It is enough to make one question, “why the difference?”

    Luckily for me, our church also just went through the book of Hebrews. I’m sure you’re quite familiar with the establishment of the context between the Old Covenant and New Covenant. But to me this provides a reasonable explanation for the different responses of God in the OT versus the NT. Our pastor taught (and maybe you agree with this, maybe not) that the purpose of the Old Covenant was to demonstrate to people that they are inherently sinful and deserve punishment for that sin as a result. That’s why the establishment of the law was necessary–to show man that there are objective moral values, and that God is firmly on the right side of them and must respond justly to any actions that fall on the wrong side of them, in accordance with His nature. The New Covenant is to demonstrate to people how to live in light of that sin and to recognize that there is a means of salvation from this punishment. Naturally, salvation sounds plenty better than punishment, so God of the NT sounds a lot better than the God of the OT.

    I don’t think the God of the OT went away though; He couldn’t have, otherwise He would not have the characteristic of immutability. One has to wonder if God rages against nations today; I would submit that it’s probable–it’s just that all nations reject Him to some degree, so it doesn’t seem targeted to any one country (i.e. Pakistan doesn’t get hit with more natural disasters than the U.S., let’s say) by our post-modern standards.

    The problem that most people shaken by the God of the OT (and this includes both believers and non-believers) is rooted in a mis-understanding that God must be only loving all the time. The nature of God essentially mandates Him to constant righteous anger against sin. This still happens even today. It’s the salvation that exempts us from the execution of this anger that makes it not only a gift, but a precious one also.

    So the OT to me provides excellent context for the NT, as it shows the reader what God’s nature is bound to, and it emphasizes how loving of a God He is in providing a way to be fit for heaven in spite of our unworthiness and undeservedness. Those who feel like the God of the OT is “capricious, spiteful, hate-filled and war-mongering” also carry with them a certain sense of pride, like God owes them an explanation. I don’t know if that necessarily applies to the person you spoke with, as this person seems more curious than proud. But when we realize that God must act this way to be consistent with His nature and that we are owed NOTHING by Him, it makes a lot more sense and is a lot more understandable.

    Sorry for the novel. Just wanted to get in everything that was running through my head. Thanks for sharing!

    September 16, 2010
    • Thanks for the kind words and your comment. I think that the Old Covenant/New Covenant distinction is certainly an important one to make, but I’m not sure it goes quite the distance some might think it does. The person I was talking with, for example, is very familiar with the difference between the two covenants, but the questions about why God appears to permit—even command—such different things in the OT remain. I don’t think the OT exists exclusively to show us how much we need Jesus—as if it were a kind of extended introduction to the gospel (I’m not suggesting you said this, but it is a common enough view). Somehow, if we want to claim that Scripture shows us a coherent singular narrative directed by one God whose character is good, we have to have something intelligent to say about the earlier parts of the story. It’s important to remember that there is mercy and kindness in the OT just as there is anger and judgment in the NT. If we draw too sharp a distinction between the two covenants, we walk perilously close to Marcionism.

      I think you are right to point out that there is a certain sense of entitlement in the “postmodern” (for lack of a better word) mindset. We feel like we are owed a lot of things, including an explanation for how and why God does what he does. At times, all of us probably feel this way, but I think if we can continually try to adopt a posture of humble curiosity rather than arrogant pride (as you say above) we will be able to deal with these issues with integrity and honesty and faith.

      (Don’t worry about the “novel.” I tend to be a bit wordy too :).)

      September 16, 2010
  2. Tyler #

    “people still read this book—this whole book—and come to the conclusion that God loves them, that God is one, and that God is good. Despite the “bad PR” of the OT, people still discover a God who exercises and delights in kindness, justice, and righteousness.”

    It seems to take a lot of rationalizing to do this, a lot of work to ‘make it fit.’ In other instances and world views this excessive rationalizing make things fit is heavily criticized. Why should the bible be the exception? Why should we say there is things I dont understand and this ok so God is ok? There is many things I don’t understand about governmental policies and military operations, and in these instances there is things I will never know. A lot of the policies of George Bush for example, yet there is instances where he is compassionate, caring and well reasoned. Should I say to myself he is a good guy there so that is who is and the other things I just dont understand?

    September 17, 2010
    • James #

      Tyler, I completely agree that the Bible should not be treated any differently than any other book. However, it is not treated like any other book. For example, Dawkins statement, “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all of fiction”, is a patently stupid claim that can only be made by a person with no familiarity with either literature or ancient mythologies- and yet it stands unchallenged because there are aspects of the OT story that jar our sensibilities. What is missed when we stop there, is the startling universalism in the OT. That is startling only to those who have actually read competing cosmologies, either ancient or modern.
      From my end, all I would ask for is a level playing field- an objective examination of the data.

      September 17, 2010
    • Tyler, it’s a good question that entire libraries have probably been filled in response to :). For the sake of brevity, I will just throw two things out there:

      1). I think that everyone reads the Bible with some kind of implicit or explicit interpretive strategy. For Anabaptists, everything that we say about who God is is filtered through the lens of Christ. The passage I cited in the post from Colossians 1 is a very Anabaptist-friendly passage because it says that there is no more accurate, complete, or comprehensive picture of who God is than Jesus. This doesn’t mean that we just play Jesus as a trump card that renders the OT irrelevant. But it does acknowledge that God’s self-disclosure and how he is understood and explained by his followers changes over time. There is a trajectory at work in Scripture—a trajectory that I would say is always toward love.

      2) I think that every worldview rationalizes something. For people of faith, perhaps there is interpretive work to do in order to conceive of God as consistent and good. Perhaps we rationalize certain things in our attempts to understand God’s character. But I think that, for example, there is rationalization at work in supposedly irreligious views as well. The more unpleasant “facts” about the nature of our origins, the process by which human beings arrive on the scene, and the lack of objective ethical purpose and meaning to the cosmos have to, in a sense, be explained away or rationalized in order to live ethically and hopefully.

      Of course much more could be said about both of the above… Maybe another post, another time.

      September 17, 2010
  3. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been drawn to the Bible’s more difficult passages, like Jeremiah. They seem more properly mimetic; the world is like Jeremiah most of the time, isn’t it? And we are too often unable to parse our cosmos, despite our struggles. After Jeremiah, I always ask God for sustenance rather than for comprehension–like Hopkins in his meditation on the prophet: “O thou Lord of life, send my roots rain.”

    September 19, 2010
    • Sustenance rather than comprehension. I like that. Even better, I suppose, would be sustenance and at least some measure of comprehension, however minimal. But I think you’re right, if forced to pick, sustenance is more important. Who knows—perhaps even a parse-able cosmos would leave thirsty roots.

      September 19, 2010

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